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Are Americans Feeling More Isolationist?

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A recent survey by the Pew Research Center offers evidence that cuts both ways. On balance, though, it suggests that Americans don't want to withdraw from the world so much as they want to avoid the past decade's strategic errors and refashion their country's role for a more complex, competitive global environment. The desire to recalibrate proceeds from a belief that American influence is waning: "For the first time in surveys dating to 1974," Pew found, "more than half of the public (53 percent) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago."

There are prominent observers who disagree. Robert Kagan, for example, explained last January that "in every single decade since the end of World War II, Americans have worried about their declining influence and looked nervously as other powers seemed to be rising at their expense."

And as Joseph Nye concluded more recently, the trend in American influence depends on where one looks: "In East Asia, for instance, U.S. power is as great as -- or greater than -- it was 10 years ago ... On the other hand, the United States is less able to influence events in the Middle East today."

Whatever one's judgment, Americans appear to have concluded that a foreign-policy reorientation is in order; in this case, however, reorientation doesn't equal retrenchment.

Eighty-two percent of Americans believe that it's more important for the U.S. to focus on "domestic policy"; only eight percent say so about "foreign policy."

As Pew explains, "many [of Americans'] leading foreign policy priorities reflect domestic concerns." Furthermore, Americans are hardly advising their leaders to neglect foreign challenges. Sixty-seven percent believe that North Korea's nuclear program poses a "major threat" to the U.S.; 68 percent say so about Iran's nuclear program; 70 percent say so about cyber attacks from other countries; and 75 percent say so about extremist groups such as al-Qaeda.

As to actions that the U.S. should take: Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe that it should accord "top priority" to combating international drug trafficking; 61 percent say so about becoming more energy independent; 73 percent say so about preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and 83 percent say so about preventing terrorist attacks against the homeland.

These aren't the beliefs of individuals who want the U.S. to be a bystander.

Eighty percent believe that the U.S. should "concentrate more on [its] own national problems and building up [its] strength and prosperity here at home."

There's widespread agreement that America's ability to sustain a liberal international order depends on its vitality at home. Low growth, high unemployment and soaring debt not only make it costlier for the U.S. to sustain robust alliances and safeguard the global commons; they also erode the appeal of American governance.

But Americans aren't advocating protectionism. Seventy-seven percent believe that "growing trade and business ties between the U.S. and other countries" are very or somewhat good for the country; 66 percent believe that the U.S. should become more engaged in the global economy; and 62 percent believe that the U.S. economy would largely benefit if more foreign companies set up shop here.

Fifty-two percent believe that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally," the highest figure since 1964.

Americans are understandably reluctant to get bogged down further in the Middle East. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exacted an enormous toll, financially (Harvard's Linda Bilmes estimated that their final price tag could range from $4 to $6 trillion, or roughly 25 percent to 40 percent of America's GDP) and strategically (the U.S. is playing catch-up after neglecting the Asia-Pacific region and according insufficient weight to geoeconomics in its foreign policy). As instability continues to roil North Africa and the Middle East, moreover, there's a legitimate concern that interventions -- in Syria or elsewhere -- could fuel sectarian tensions and legitimize the narrative of al Qaeda central and its regional offshoots that the U.S. is waging war on Islam.

While the more eye-catching quotes from the Pew poll suggest otherwise, a major takeaway is that Americans want their country to lead in international affairs. Only 12 percent believe that the U.S. should play no leadership role. Seventy-two percent believe that it "should play a shared leadership role." The poll didn't ask respondents who the U.S. should play this role with, but China is the clearest candidate. It'll soon overtake the U.S. in aggregate economic size (48 percent of Americans already believe that China is the world's leading economic power), and it's engaged in a multidimensional competition with the U.S. for preeminence in the Asia-Pacific, the nerve center of international affairs this century.

But a "new model of great-power relations" between the two countries (Xi Jinping's phrase) is only one piece of the leadership puzzle. The U.S. must strengthen its alliances with China's neighbors and resource its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. It must revitalize its relationship with the European Union, which, in addition to being the largest agglomeration of economic power, remains indispensable in shaping the norms of international affairs (50 percent of Americans believe that America's most important relationships are with European countries). It must assess how its relationship with Russia will evolve if Ukraine drifts into the latter's orbit. It must restore its competitiveness in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, newly dynamic regions that barely figured in assessments of the global strategic balance a decade earlier.

It must undertake these and related objectives, moreover, amidst a range of realities: military power is increasingly unable to contribute to the achievement of geopolitical objectives; economic heft continues to shift, from West to East and North to South; political clout is spreading among a dizzying array of non-state actors, some of which spring up as quickly as they disappear; and, notwithstanding the resurgence of the declinist narrative, no one country or coalition seems willing or able to undertake America's responsibilities for international order.

With President Obama set to release a new national-security strategy early in 2014, the Pew survey is a call for America not to shrink its role in the world, but to adjust it.